The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate the first-period goal of Logan Ritchie (far left) on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate the first-period goal of Logan Ritchie (far left) on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears hope to start playing home games in January

Team to start season based in Minnesota

The Kenai River Brown Bears will be based in Anoka, Minnesota, until after Christmas break, the team’s general manager said Wednesday.

“Our goal is January,” Chris Hedlund, general manager, said. “We have minimal home games between now and January. We scheduled heavier on the back side to give more time to get a better picture of what’s happening with COVID. In January, we hope to come home.”

The North American Hockey League has 27 teams, but three teams have elected to take this season off due to the new coronavirus pandemic. The most recent team to bow out of the 2020-21 season is the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues, who made the announcement Wednesday.

The Jr. Blues are in the Midwest Division along with the Brown Bears, so Hedlund said rescheduling is taking place. Hedlund said the deadline has now passed for teams to opt out of the season, so the NAHL should be able to release its schedule in the upcoming days.

The Bears will start training camp Oct. 7 in Minnesota and the season will begin later in October and conclude near the end of April, with the playoffs beginning in May.

Hedlund said the Bears have 24 home dates. Right now, 19 or 20 of those home games are scheduled after Christmas break in the hope the team will be able to play them at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

In order for the Bears to return, Hedlund said one of the main things that must be figured out is protocols for travel. The Bears also would have to figure out what the sports complex will allow in January in terms of fans.

“What if a team comes up and gets tested and they have a flare-up and they can’t play a game?” Hedlund said. “What if seven or eight kids develop COVID symptoms while they are up in Alaska and we have to cancel the game?”

Until all those questions can be answered, the Bears will stay in Minnesota.

“We’re going to do the right thing here and minimize the cost structure until we can get the players back into the community and do what the Brown Bears do,” Hedlund said.

Hedlund said that for about four years, the Bears have had secondary billet families in Anoka that allow for more comfort and familiarity while the team has extended road trips in the Midwest. Anoka is about 20 minutes from Blaine, which is where Hedlund lives.

Kenai River home games will be played in Breezy Point, Minnesota, which is about two hours from Anoka. Hedlund said Breezy Point had a North American 3 Hockey League team until this year.

With the rink already set up for junior hockey, Hedlund said Breezy Point is a perfect temporary home. The area even has resort lodging that will be ideal for hosting the Bears and their opponents on game weekends.

“When the time comes to go back to Alaska, we won’t go to Breezy Point, we’ll go back to Alaska like we normally do,” Hedlund said.

The Kenai River general manager said the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the only other Alaska team in the NAHL, will have a similar setup in Marshall, Minnesota, also hoping to come back to Alaska after the Christmas break.

Hedlund said said the state of Minnesota will allow 250 fans in the rink.

“Having 250 fans does allow us to have some revenue,” Hedlund said. “Minnesota is a hockey community so that allows us to have some excitement in the smaller building, which is not nearly the facility we have in Soldotna.

“With 250 fans, that building should be rocking.”

Hedlund said the Bears are limiting expenditures as much as possible until they can get back to Alaska. He said the team is committed to playing a full season, even if the Bears can’t get back to Alaska.

“We’re going for it,” Hedlund said. “We have our fingers crossed that over time we just get to a better scenario.”

With scheduling, figuring out the logistics of staying in Minnesota and preparing for the league’s COVID protocols, Hedlund said he has been putting in two or three times as much time and energy as he normally would preparing for a season.

With a firmer plan in place, Hedlund said the team will now begin reaching out to sponsors to see what they can offer during these challenging financial times.

Hedlund also said head coach Kevin Murdock and the team is feeling good knowing there is a report date for training camp and the team is committed to playing this season.

“We’re pretty excited,” Hedlund said. “We’ve got a good roster. As long as COVID doesn’t get worse, we’re in good shape to have a good season and we have a solid chance to come back after Christmas.”

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